By Mike Smith
Stories say that somewhere in the Sandias, around their northern end, along the rock-and-juniper-studded fringes of the village of Placitas, there lies a buried treasure of immense wealth—the Lost Mine of Montezuma. Some of these stories are obviously just legends, while others involve fleeting snatches of actual history.
This part of the legend, if it’s true, would have taken place sometime in the first half of the 1800s. I think I first came across it in Lou Sage Batchen’s Las Placitas: Historical Facts and Legends. A young man had been herding goats in the northern Sandia Mountains, when one of them, a kid, wandered off. Hunting all across the mountainside, the young shepherd became lost and wandered into a dense tangle of some kind of oaks—a thicket so dense he had to crawl through them. Then, right in front of him, he saw a cave with a ladder sticking up from it. He climbed down the ladder, and in a small room in the side of the cave he beheld stacks of gold and silver bullion. While he was standing there, staring, someone threw a blanket over his head. Later, when the blanket was removed, he saw a group of enraged Native Americans. They threatened him against ever going back.
One almost certainly fictional account of this treasure involves Montezuma, once the Aztec emperor of Mexico, sending a caravan loaded with treasure north out of Mexico City in 1520 with the intent to hide the treasure from the Spanish. The riders allegedly made it to some mountains, perhaps in New Mexico, where they hid the treasure in a cave. Even if this story is misplaced, or a complete fiction, it’s likely that it did influence the story of the Sandias’ most famous lost mine—that its details were conflated with other stories. Otherwise, why would the name Montezuma be applied to it?
But there were real old-time Spanish gold mines in the Sandias. A letter written around 1899 by a Placitas local named Bill Echart mentions old Spanish documents dating back to 1667—documents that describe five old Spanish gold and silver mines near Placitas—“five lost mines in this district, of which the Montezuma is one.” That same letter mentions a man named Antonio Jimenez who loaded 12 mules down with bullion from the mines, set off south into Old Mexico, and was never seen again.
These mines were apparently known to the local Native Americans long before the Spanish era, but once the Spanish arrived, they used the natives as slave labor to work them. Five native men allegedly died when one of the Montezuma’s lower shafts caved in on them. Understandably, the native population did not enjoy any of this, and in 1680, as part of the much-larger Pueblo Revolt, they rose up, drove their oppressors from the region, and filled in all the mines with dirt.
In the two centuries after that, Spanish settlers returned to the area, founding the settlements of Placitas, Ojo de la Casa, Tecolote, Tejon, and others. Stories and evidence of the area’s mining legacy must have persisted, because on one 1875 map, the area’s most prominent ridge is labeled Sierra de la Mina—or Mountain of the Mine. Today that ridge is known as the Crest of Montezuma.
In the 1870s and ‘80s, the northern end of the Sandias experienced a minor silver boom, bringing with it the mountains’ first significant influx of white settlers. Some of them must have heard stories of the legendary mine, or mines, and been drawn to that specific area as a result. One story tells of a prospector named Dick Wooten who nursed an old Native American man back to health and in return was shown the location of an old mine, perhaps the mine, which he reopened.
Las Placitas: Historical Facts and Legends recounts a bit about that mining boom:
On the high tide of the excitement, a prospector named Wilson came into Ojo de la Casa. He located claims at the north end of the Sandias where legend located the old Montezuma. Many prospectors followed him and soon the whole of Sandia ridge the length of Las Huertas Cañon was staked with claims and the locations registered at Albuquerque, the county seat.
Wilson later opened a little saloon near what’s now the Crest of Montezuma. New mines were reopened in the area of Ojo de la Casa, one was optimistically named the Montezuma Mine, and a tiny, short-lived community sprang up around them. Robert Julyan’s Place Names of New Mexico says the settlement was called Montezuma and lasted from 1879 to 1880. Its ruins, including those of two of its mines, are still visible today—their railroad tie timbers gray and splintering, their rusted pipes flaking away into metallic dirt.
Wilson was never known as being very likable, and his saloon had a reputation for violence and rowdiness, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that he was shot to death. His killer was seen running down toward Bernalillo, and was never caught. And because Wilson was the owner of what was then called the Montezuma Mine, his death became part of the legend.
Legends have a funny way of never getting clearer—of growing more complex as time goes by, breaking into multiple versions, growing less and less certain over time. History often does the opposite, crystalizing into incomplete but clear narratives and matrixes of complementary facts.
The Lost Mine of Montezuma seems to inhabit a world somewhere between the two. When you hear the stories, they seem fanciful, legendary. But when you get out and walk the Crest of Montezuma and see the ruined entrances of the 19th-century mines, it seems as if you’d only need to stumble onto one grove of densely wooded oaks to make the whole unbelievable story seem suddenly very real.